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Throwing the game – how to avoid choking under pressure

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This past month marked the 6th season of the IEM world championships and brought many of the world’s best Starcraft 2 athletes together in Hannover to compete for the Intel Masters 2011 trophy. The finals were, in many peoples’ minds, a dream rematch of the IEM Cologne finals between the fantastic protoss player SK Gaming’s MC and terran player Evil Genius’s PuMa. In the first game MC came out with a strong, aggressive style that heavily punished PuMa’s expansion strategy. Down one game, PuMa showcased his talented micromanagement by winning the next two games with picture-perfect medivac drops while simultaneously defending his home base from MC’s massive assaults. PuMa’s precise and flawless play made it feel like a terran art piece. However, game four was a depressing turning point for PuMa fans, and brings me to the topic I want to discuss this week. Choking under pressure.

Before I get into specifics on what occurred, I want to define choking more precisely. Here is an example of a normal person’s performance averaged over many different events.

Despite what it may feel like on the ladder, most people have the same number of superb games as dismal ones. Everything in the middle is our standard ability.

A technical definition

The idea of choking is a common concept for competitors. Most people use it to connote a dismal performance. Sometimes it is also used when one person or team has a very far lead and throws the game through a series of basic mistakes. To avoid misunderstanding during the article today, I want to use a more technical definition of choking. I will borrow the definition cited by Hill et. al. (2011) in his action research paper on choking in elite golf athletes:

Choking is a critical deterioration in skill execution, leading to substandard performance that is caused by an elevation in anxiety levels under perceived pressure, at a time when successful outcome is normally attainable by the athlete.

So one can see by this definition that choking can happen to all people who are performing, not just professional athletes. First a performer must be in a position where they have an average capability of winning or succeeding. Then they perform worse than average due to stress and fail instead. It’s important to note that the drop in performance is due to anxiety rather than some other common factor such as the weather, being overly tired, or playing against somebody of superior skill.

Using this definition we can examine why some athletes do not choke, and how to train choke-preventing skills.

First lets return to the MC versus PuMa match. Many people afterwards discussed how PuMa threw away a winning situation in game four. However for this article, the more interesting phenomenon is that MC did not choke. Under immense pressure, facing an opponent who had defeated him before, playing in the finals of the world championship, losing two games in a row, and having just had his army and mining force completely demolished by his opponent in what was rapidly looking like the final game of the series. In this situation, MC maintained his focus and did nothing more special than not make a single further mistake, allowing his opponent to lose the game for him.

No “bad days”

Here is a version of the above graph that represents MC and other consistent, professional athletes:

The big thing to note is that MC has developed a suite of mental skills through his competitive experience (or training) that reduces his chance of putting out a dismal performance to nearly zero. MC and athletes like him have no “bad days.” There are many terms used by the public to describe athletes who have developed these mental coping skills such as: championship mindset, mentally tough, experienced athlete, consistent performer, and hunger to win. The most important thing to realize is that a lot of these successful competitors learn these skills either through training or competitive experience. Rarely are they innate talents.

Research supports the idea that people are not born champions, but are made into them. Below is a list of mental skills often trained to reduce choking. I chose techniques that generally improve mental skills as a whole over the long-term rather than common “quick-fix” solutions that might not work a second time, since I think that creates a more holistic athlete.

Preperformance routine Reduces anxiety and enhances performance emotions
Self-talk Rationalize performance and restructure effort towards accomplishable goals
Imagery Lowers perceived pressure and encourages automatic performance of skills
Simulated practice Increases competitive experience by raising performance pressure during off-time

The cause of choking

If we return to the definition of choking, each of the above listed skills targets either the perceived pressure, also known as anxiety, that causes choking. This perceived pressure an athlete feels is differentiated from actual pressure because it is completely person dependent. Two different people might be in the exact same situation, and feel completely different amounts of pressure. For example, two people are defusing identical bombs, but one of them is an NBA star and the other is a professional bomb defuser. The NBA star may feel drastically higher anxiety in this situation. Here the actual pressure is equal, death, but the perceived pressure is dependent on if you are a basketball player or a bomb defuser. However, there is also the case of two different situations with very different actual pressure, but the perceived pressure is the same. For example, a certain eight-year-old girl taking the game winning free-throw is feeling the same pressure as a bomb-defuser about to cut a live wire.

Lowering this perceived pressure is the absolute best way to get a quick handle on a “choking” situation, because it is usually the most controllable factor in a competition, and it is the primary cause of choking. The reason perceived pressure is so controllable by mentally trained athletes is that it is completely contained in one persons mind. If one can simply convince themselves that they feel no pressure, then it’s impossible for them to choke! Of course in that case they will probably lose from being too lackadaisical, but that is covered in this article.

PuMa’s unfortunate situation

In PuMa’s situation, I would analyze that his major problem was the loss of an underdog mentality. Coming in against a big name like MC and losing handily in game 1, he ‘scraped’ by in games 2 and 3 with brilliant defenses against a terrifying army and used that adrenaline and focus to manage simultaneous drops. However, in game 3 he was in the drivers seat and stymied MC’s strategy with a decisive fight. All of a sudden he was the presumed champion, and he started playing like a gold-ranked ladder player. (For those non SC2 people, that’s better than bronze and silver, but not as good as platinum, diamond and masters.) It was very reminiscent of the 1994 Wimbledon finals between Jana Novotna and Steffi Graf. Jana was dominant throughout the tournament and series and was about to win a game and take the finals into the deciding game. She double faulted and then choked. The following ten minutes was a fascinating spiral of such abysmal tennis that Jana appeared to be a non-ranked player.

PuMa had no breaks in play during the 4th game to “reset” his mental state, as is possible in tennis. However, he could have used self-talk and imagery to put himself back into the “underdog mentality.” That is assuming that he was prepared for using such skills. Self-talk requires a bit of practice to be effective, and imagery even more so. However, it is possible to practice these outside of competition, and then come into a live performance environment and perform more like an experienced player than a novice while at the same time reducing the likelihood of choking.

Learning by playing

The most fun way to learn to compete is, of course, to compete a lot! Even so, many people fail to reflect during and after competitions, especially easy ones, and thus do not codify the skills they practiced during the event. Using self-reflection, also called meta-cognition (thinking about thinking), is one of the surefire ways to benefit from and learn mental coping strategies in a more natural and organic manner.

Simulated practice is the act of turning practice into competition. For example, in Starcraft 2 training houses many insider tournaments and scrimmages are held in an effort to enhance the mental training effect by creating a high pressure situation. League of Legends teams have more and more turned to scrimmages with other elite teams as a training method. However, these fake competitions are only as useful as the players can make them. With so little on the line, it is easy to fall into the trap of passive play and not let one’s mind treat the situation as a competition. Therefore, one thinks and plays differently, and the training effect is reduced.

To counter this, many pro athletes invest time into mentally psyching themselves up and preparing for “important” scrimmages to increase their own self-pressure. They also keep training journals and use self-reflection to improve the training effect. I highly recommend these two steps as the easiest and best way to improve practice efficiency. When training, play every game “try-hard” and keep a journal to codify any mental coping skills being refined along the way.